What Was Michelle Rhee’s 'Damage Control' for Fiance?

D.C. schools chancellor is said to have taken an active role in investigations of her fiance

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    NEWSLETTERS

    What Was Michelle Rhee’s ‘Damage Control’ for Kevin Johnson? was originally published on City Desk on Nov. 20, 2009, at 2:34 p.m.

    Stories broke this morning in the Los Angeles Times and in the Examiner reporting that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee took an active role in investigations of her fiance, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

    Allow us to explicate a little more fully what this is and what Rhee is alleged to have done.

    Rhee's involvement in Johnson's dealing has been revealed as part of an investigation by two congressional Republicans into the firing of Gerald Walpin, who had served as inspector general for the federal AmeriCorps program until June. Republicans allege that Walpin was fired by the Obama administration for political reasons -- in particular, for pressing his investigation of mismanagement of federal funds by St. Hope, the nonprofit founded by prominent Democrat and Obama ally Johnson.

    The Republican report [PDF], released today, concludes that the White House's decision to fire Walpin was "based on incomplete and misleading information;" that a White House lawyer's explanation for the firing is "not credible;" and that the firing "is likely to have a chilling effect on the IG community." In other words, there's a lot of political posturing going on here.

    But along with their report, the Republicans also released Walpin's IG report on St. Hope, which includes interview notes indicating that Rhee got involved after a St. Hope employee reported being "touched inappropriately" by Johnson.

    Rhee's involvement in the probe stems from the statements of Jacqueline Wong-Hernandez, a former St. Hope staff member, to federal investigators. According to an interview report, Wong-Hernandez told an investigator that Rhee was well known as someone who filled several roles with Johnson's St. Hope organization and would use Johnson's office when she was in town. Wong-Hernandez said that Rhee 'played the role as "Damage Control." When there was a problem at St. Hope, Ms. Rhee was there the next day taking care of the problem.'

    When the sexual misconduct allegations were raised, Rhee contacted Wong-Hernandez to figure out what had happened, telling her "she was making this her number one priority and she would take care of the situation." Subsequently, Wong-Hernandez found out that Johnson's lawyer had contacted the accuser, after which the accuser dropped the complaint.

    Disgusted with how the incident had been handled, Wong-Hernandez quit St. Hope, and it was Rhee who conducted the exit interview. She told Rhee the reason she was leaving was the way St. Hope had handled the sexual misconduct allegation. According to the interview report, "Ms. Wong-Hernandez also informed Ms. Rhee that she didn't trust the management at St. Hope. Ms. Rhee documented the interview in her daily planner and responded to Ms. Wong-Hernandez by thanking her for bringing it to her attention how disorganized the program had become. Ms. Rhee didn't try to talk Ms. Wong-Hernandez into staying."

    The L.A. Times further reports that Rhee spoke directly to Walpin, having discussions "in which she made the case for Johnson and the school he ran in Sacramento" and described Johnson as "a good guy." Still, the paper reports, "Rhee's position had little effect on [Walpin], who filed a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney on Johnson....But both the Sacramento police and federal attorneys declined to pursue charges."

    When Walpin's report had to say regarding Johnson's sexual misconduct was a relatively minor part of the report, which focused on misappropriation of federal funds and other serious-but-less-salacious charges. But allow us to share what Walpin turned up -- the first instance related in the report is what was described to Rhee by Wong-Hernandez; it's unknown if Rhee was aware of the other allegations below:

    G. Improper Sexual Physical Conduct

    Our investigation disclosed evidence of sexual misconduct towards young female Members by Mr. Johnson. One Member, [REDACTED] (Ex. 19 hereto), reported that, in the February/March 2007 time frame, she was entering grades into the SAC High database system per Mr. Johnson's instructions at the St. HOPE office at night, purportedly as part of her AmeriCorps service. [REDACTED] contacted Mr. Johnson to inform him that she had completed the grades and wanted him to review them. About 11:00 pm, Mr. Johnson arrived at St. HOPE and instructed [REDACTED] to gather her things and come with him. Mr. Johnson drove to [REDACTED] apartment, which is managed by St. HOPE Development and houses its AmeriCorps Members, purportedly so that they could review the students' grades. While in [REDACTED], in which another AmeriCorps Member had a separate bedroom, Mr, Johnson laid down on [REDACTED's] bed, [REDACTED] sat on the edge of the bed to show him the grades, at which time Mr. Johnson "layed down behind me, cupping his body around mine like the letter C. After about 2-3 minutes or so, I felt his hand on my left side where my hip bone is." Further, although not detailed in her written statement, [REDACTED], during the interview, demonstrated, while explaining, that Mr. Johnson's hand went under her untucked shirt and moved until his hand was on her hip. [REDACTED] immediately got up and stated she was done and left the room. When she returned, Mr. Johnson was still in her bed, but now apparently sleeping. Only after [REDACTED] sought to take a blanket to sleep elsewhere did Mr. Johnson exit to the living room of the apartment. [REDACTED] related that Mr. Johnson slept on the couch in her apartment living room that night and subsequently left the apartment at approximately 6 a.m. the next day.

    After, as [REDACTED] put it, she "got the courage to tell... my supervisors," she reported the incident, which, she was informed, was communicated to St. HOPE Academy's Human Resources Department and the Chief Financial Officer. The night after [REDACTED] made her report, Mr. Johnson approached her and apologized. Subsequently, Kevin Hiestand, Johnson's personal attorney, met with [REDACTED], described himself only "as a friend of Johnson," and "basically asked me to keep quiet." Also, about one week after this incident, when [REDACTED] told Mr. Johnson she was going to quit because of financial and family reasons, Mr. Johnson "offered to give me $1,000 a month until the end of the program," stating that it would be confidential "between him and I." As [REDACTED] related that conversation, Mr. Johnson "said all he needed was my savings account number," he would make the deposit and "no one needed to know about it." [REDACTED] did not accept this offer by giving Mr. Johnson her account number.

    Another former Member, [REDACTED] (Ex. 20 hereto), reported that, while attending a St. HOPE sponsored trip to Harlem, NY, from June 26 to July 16, 2006, Mr. Johnson, on three occasions, "brushed [her] leg with his hand," including once "flip[ingj up the edge of her skirt. Other times, she stated, Mr. Johnson kissed her cheek, brushed up against her as he walked past, and massaged her shoulders. ([REDACTED] reported another incident that occurred in Sacramento, CA, in which Mr. Johnson touched [REDACTED's] inner thigh with his hand while enroute to a restaurant. [REDACTED] said she did not report the incidents to AmeriCorps officials at that time because she feared she would be terminated from the program and because Mr. Johnson was assisting her in obtaining acceptance into the United States Military Academy, where she subsequently enrolled.

    In addition, former SAC High teacher Mr. Erik Jones (Ex. 12 hereto) reported that a former AmeriCorps Member, [REDACTED], reported to him, sometime in 2007, that, while at SAC High, Mr. Johnson had inappropriately touched her. Mr. Jones stated that [REDACTED] had reported that Mr. Johnson started massaging her shoulders and then reached over and touched her breasts. (Attempts to interview [REDACTED] have been so far unsuccessful.) Mr. Jones related that, after he reported this incident to St. HOPE Academy officials, he was contacted by Mr. Hiestand, Mr. Johnson's attorney, but who identified himself solely as St. HOPE'S counsel, and stated he was conducting an internal investigation. Mr. Hiestand told Mr. Jones that [REDACTED's] "story" was different from Mr, Jones' and told Mr. Jones to change his "story" and then go back to work. Mr. Jones, realizing what he was being asked to do, elected to resign as a teacher and left SAC High.